Frances Palmer Pottery

Frances Palmer Pottery

Published on Wednesday, March 11, 2009. This article appears in the April/May 2009 issue of American Craft Magazine.

Four-handled Dahlia.

When Frances Palmer sits down at the potter's wheel, she is never quite sure what the result will be. "Even if it's a vase similar to one I've already made, when I sit down and I make it, the clay has it's own personality," says Palmer, who is based in Weston, Connecticut. "It depends on the day, the weather-many different factors. Sometimes I want to go straight up and the clay wants to go out. I try to do what the clay wants to do."

It is the unique "personalities" of Palmer's asymmetrical vases-such as the four-handled dahlia and bud vases-bowls and plates that appeal to so many of her clients. Since the beginning of her pottery career 20 years ago, prompted by a class she took at the local art guild, Palmer has had little trouble finding a strong private clientele. "People are interested in seeing new material," she explains. "And sometimes all they need is for it to be brought to their attention."

Quirky and whimsical, Palmer's pieces also possess a classic beauty that has brought her international attention, including from the board at the Philip Johnson Glass House. Palmer was part of the first group of six artists asked to design pots for the 47-acre estate, now open to the public. For this project, Palmer wanted to create something with an organic feel, and she found herself inspired by the bisque work of George Ohr, whose pots were collected by Johnson's partner, David Whitney.

Yet, not everyone has the means to commission Palmer's work, and this led to her decision five years ago to start a factory-made line, the Frances Palmer Pearl Collection. "Over the years I've made lots of dinner sets and they took an enormous amount of time and were expensive," says Palmer. "Not everybody can use this stuff. I decided that I was going to find someone who could help me make dishes that can be used every day."

"Factory-made" can have a negative connotation, but on Palmer's watch everything is about as close to handmade as a mass-produced object can get. She makes prototypes for Buffalo Pottery, a century-old factory in upstate New York, which then molds the shapes. From there everything is hand-pressed and each piece hand-glazed by one woman.

The most important thing to Palmer, whether it's her handmade pieces or the Pearl Collection, is creating beauty that is also useful. "When I think of the vases, I love the fact that they can be objects, but I also love them filled with flowers. They straddle the barrier between function and art."